Monday, August 30, 2010

Blog Vacation

I will be away from blogging until after Labor Day. Happy end of summer, everyone!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Work in Progress: Shake Up Your Brain

I’m trying some new things writing-wise these days, and it’s interesting how just a few steps out of the usual routine can seem so exhilarating and lead to an excellent creative pay-off. Here’s what’s been working for me:

--New location. I’ve been walking to some area coffee shops (yay, exercise!) to work.

--New time. I’m doing this during the morning, though my usual writing time is in the afternoon.

--New medium. At the coffee shop, I’m writing with a pen (remember those?) on paper (remember that?).

--New form. I’m writing non-fiction instead of fiction.

--New looseness. I’m just letting things spill out without thinking too hard and I try not to go back to revise or even to read the previous day’s work. For now, it’s just-move-forward…write like a shark!

I don’t know what will come of all this—in a way, there’s a fine line between this writing and writing in a private journal—but I’m trying not to worry about that (see “new looseness”)—and so far, so good. Can writing actually be fun?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Link Corral: Southern Lit, Spartanburg Bookstore, and Write a Novel in 3 Days

The Crab Orchard Review is reading for a special theme issue, Old & New, Re-Visions of The American South:

Crab Orchard Review is seeking work for our Summer/Fall 2011 issue focusing on writing exploring the people, places, history, and new directions that have shaped and are reshaping the American South.

All submissions should be original, unpublished poetry, fiction, or literary nonfiction in English or unpublished translations in English (we do run bilingual, facing-page translations whenever possible). Please query before submitting any interview.

The submission period for this issue is August 10 through November 1, 2010. We will be reading submissions throughout this period and hope to complete the editorial work on the issue by the end of March 2011. Writers whose work is selected will receive $25 (US) per magazine page ($50 minimum for poetry; $100 minimum for prose) and two copies of the issue. Mail submissions to:

American South issue
Faner 2380, Mail Code 4503
Southern Illinois University Carbondale
1000 Faner Drive
Carbondale, IL 62901

Get the rest of the details here.


Do you already have plans for the Labor Day weekend? If not, how about writing a novel for the 3-Day Novel Contest?

From the website:

Can you produce a masterwork of fiction in three short days? The 3-Day Novel Contest is your chance to find out. For more than 30 years, hundreds of writers step up to the challenge each Labour Day weekend, fuelled by nothing but adrenaline and the desire for spontaneous literary nirvana. It’s a thrill, a grind, a 72-hour kick in the pants and an awesome creative experience. How many crazed plotlines, coffee-stained pages, pangs of doubt and moments of genius will next year’s contest bring forth? And what will you think up under pressure?

1st Prize: Publication*
2nd Prize: $500
3rd Prize: $100
*The first prize winner will be offered a publishing contract by 3-Day Books after the winner announcement in the January following the contest. Once the contract is signed, the winning novel will be edited, published and released by the next year’s contest. 3-Day Books are distributed by Arsenal Pulp Press.

Read more here. (Thanks for the link, Anna!)


Spartanburg, SC—home of the Converse College Low-Residency MFA program—boasts a wonderful new independent bookstore downtown. If you’re in the area, please stop by Hub City Bookshop…perhaps on your way to the Beacon Drive-In for your Chili Cheese A-Plenty. (Thanks for the link, Philip!)

From the website:
The Hub City Bookshop in Spartanburg, SC, is a revolutionary independent bookstore. With each book purchased at our store, we and our customers nourish new writers and help launch authors into the literary world. That’s because all proceeds from the sale of books fund creative writing education and independent book publishing in our home community.

Located in the heart of downtown’s Grain District, our store shares the ground floor of the landmark Masonic Temple with Little River Coffee Bar and Cakehead Bakeshop. From its windows you look out on historic Morgan Square, the city clock tower, and the statue of the victorious Revolutionary War General Daniel Morgan. Operated by the non-profit Hub City Writers Project, the Hub City Bookshop specializes in new releases, regional authors, children’s books, literary fiction, history, and of course, Hub City Press titles.

Read more here.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Story of Buying a Book: Laura Lippman, I'd Know You Anywhere

Last week on Monday, I read this Washington Post review by Patrick Anderson who reviewed Laura Lippman’s new book, I’d Know You Anywhere:

“We meet Eliza Benedict when she is 38 and living with her family a few blocks off Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda. It's a good life. Her husband is smart, loving and successful. Eliza likes being a stay-at-home mom for Isobel (called Iso), who's 13, precocious and difficult, and Albie, who's 8 and a sweetheart. But Eliza has a terrible secret in her past, and one day, when she and the kids return home after soccer practice, she finds an unexpected, unwelcome letter awaiting her.

“The letter is from Walter Bowman, who kidnapped Eliza (Elizabeth, she was then) when she was 15, kept her prisoner for nearly six weeks and raped her. He had killed other girls but spared Eliza. After two decades of appeals and retrials, Walter is on death row in Virginia and within weeks of execution. He wants to see Eliza. To apologize, he says.

“I've read hundreds of thrillers in the past 10 years, and some have been excellent, but only a handful -- thanks to their insights, their characterizations and the quality of their writing -- could equal the best of today's literary fiction. Those few certainly include "What the Dead Know" [Lippman’s previous book] and "I'd Know You Anywhere." In both cases, Lippman began with a real crime and then used the magic of her imagination to produce novels that are not only hypnotic reading but serious meditations on the sorrows and dangers of this world. Some people would segregate Lippman as a crime or thriller writer. That's a shame. She's one of the best novelists around, period.”

That was Monday. On Thursday, I bought the book at independent bookstore Politics & Prose, and last night I stayed up late to finish reading it. It was excellent, a compelling read, beautifully written, and it subtly wormed its way into my head such that I didn’t sleep well (that’s actually a good thing!).

Consequently, I would like to make a few points:

1. Book reviews still work. I had heard of Laura Lippman, mostly as the Baltimore mystery writer married to one of my creative idols, David Simon, who was responsible for one of my favorite TV shows, “The Wire.” But this review—and only this review—got me into the bookstore.

2. Regular book reviewers are still effective. Patrick Anderson used to write a weekly review of thrillers/suspense books for the Washington Post, and because he was a good, honest critic, I generally read his reviews, even though I don’t typically buy in this genre. I don’t think he writes regularly now for the Post, but in this occasion I noticed his name and read the review because I knew he was a good reviewer. As a reader, I had a relationship with him: as I do with the Post’s other regular book critics, Ron Charles, Carolyn See, Michael Dirda, and Jonathan Yardley. I may prefer some of those critics to others, but they are all a trusted, familiar voice coming from a point of view that I understand. Yes, blogs can achieve this aura of a trusted voice…but bloggers may also be simply trying to push books written by their friends, or—the horror!—written by themselves

3. Blurbs can work (alas). How it pains me to mention this. But in the review, this writer was compared in quality and career path to Dennis Lehane who wrote Mystic River, another suspense book that I thought was fantastic. Of course, this was an honest comparison by a neutral observer, not praise in the “she’s the greatest writer of her generation” from the “former writing teacher/famous classmate/writer owing agent a favor” Blurb-O-Matic machinery.

4. I know one can easily do this online, but at the bookstore, finally, it was holding the book and getting to skim around the pages to get a sense of the writing that was the final step. I like the book design, I liked the print size, I liked the length of the book (370 pages). So, you can get me into the store and get the book into my hands (or cyber-hands), but it will always be the writing that will be the final step.

So, in conclusion:

Laura Lippman, if you happen to read this, I’m sorry to say so, but I think this book cover is extremely unattractive (here it is, though it’s worse in the flesh because it’s garishly shiny). I never, NEVER would have picked up this book, though I think the title is nice and the title font seems vaguely “literary” to me. Plus, it’s a hardcover…that’s real money.

But I bought this book specifically and solely as a result of reading that review.

I hope someone in New York who can send some ad dollars to the old school media that cover books is paying attention. I hope that someone in New York knows that yes, people do still read reviews and are interested in what an “expert” might say—and that there are readers left in the world who can still feel such a rush of excitement that they have to go to a bookstore and plunk down cash simply so they can find out what happens next.

Buy the book at your favorite bookstore or here.

You can read more about Laura Lippman here, including her very cool contest to get her to read/speak at your library, at her expense.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Funny Ladies

Check out the weekly humor blogs on the Bethesda [Maryland] Magazine written by two of my friends. They’re very funny even if you don’t live in the area…and if you do live here, I promise you’ll laugh out loud:

In the Semi-Charmed Life, Paula Whyman examines the wonders of suburbia:

In every home search there comes a moment like this one: You will be standing in the formal living room of a sparkling white house, surrounded by white furniture and white painted walls, with white plush carpet underfoot, and you will say to yourself, “I think there is mud on my Tevas.”

In Alternate Sides, Susan Coll tackles parking (yes, parking is very, very funny):

Even if our cooking skills are negligible and we don’t know the difference between a beefsteak and an heirloom tomato, for reasons best explained by sociologists, we nonetheless gravitate to overpriced gourmet food outlets where we’re unable to procure half of the items that we need. Hence it was with great enthusiasm that we set out to explore the new Whole Foods at Friendship Heights, and in particular, to assess the parking lot.

Special bonus:
Paula also runs a parody newspaper called the Bethesda World News, News from the Center of the Universe, which can be found here:

Contest for DC-Area Youth & Adults

Community Prize for Writing on a Festival Theme: Strangers in a Strange Land: The Lives of Jewish Immigrants

Sponsored by Washington DCJCC

We surround ourselves with communities that sustain and enrich our lives. When we leave those communities—by choice, by force, or both—our lives are upended. What do we choose to take with us to the new environment, and what do we leave behind? This year’s Opening Night explores these questions of immigration and home.

Jews have often found themselves strangers in strange lands, but new environments are not always the result of physical displacement. Tell us a true story—from your life or a family member’s—of finding oneself alone in a new place or situation.

Submissions are open to all and will be judged blindly. Work will be considered in two categories:

1) 18 years and under, and
2) over 18.

Please include your contact information and age category on the first page only. Send submissions of 500 words or fewer to by September 27, 2010.

A selection committee will choose three entries in each category to honor during the Festival and online. These winning entries will be published on the 16th Street J’s website and The Blog at 16th & Q. The first place selection in each category will win the Community Prize for Writing and a $100 Visa gift card.

More info:

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Work in Progress: "Pet Milk," A Perfect Story?

Summer’s over (sort of), or over enough that I had to steer my computer into the files where I keep my “teaching at the low-residency MFA at Converse College” life, and I found this short piece that I shared in June, as part of a panel where the faculty talked about their favorite piece of writing.

I think I would call this story "perfect":

"Pet Milk" by Stuart Dybek

“Today I've been drinking instant coffee and Pet milk, and watching it snow. It's not that I enjoy the taste especially, but I like the way Pet milk swirls in the coffee. Actually, my favorite thing about Pet milk is what the can opener does to the top of the can. The can is unmistakable — compact, seamless looking, its very shape suggesting that it could condense milk without any trouble. The can opener bites in neatly, and the thick liquid spills from the triangular gouge with a different look and viscosity than milk. Pet milk isn't real milk. The color's off, to start with. My grandmother always drank it in her coffee. When friends dropped over and sat around the kitchen table, my grandma would ask, "Do you take cream and sugar?" Pet milk was the cream.

"There was a yellow plastic radio on her kitchen table, usually tuned to the polka station, though sometimes she'd miss it by half a notch and get the Greek station instead, or the Spanish, or the Ukrainian. In Chicago, where we lived, all the incompatible states of Europe were pressed together down at the staticky right end of the dial. She didn't seem to notice, as long as she wasn't hearing English. The radio, turned low, played constantly. Its top was warped and turning amber on the side where the tubes were. I remember the sound of it on winter afternoons after school, as I sat by her table watching the Pet milk swirl and cloud in the steaming coffee, and noticing, outside her window, the sky doing the same thing above the railroad yard across the street."

“Pet Milk” by Stuart Dybek is probably my most favorite short story ever. I first read it in The New Yorker, way back when, and I actually still have those precious, torn-out pages. In a book, the story is only five-ish pages with a negligible “plot” in the traditional sense. But the scope of its effect never fails to leave me breathless, especially with the way food and memory mingle and are intertwined.

We start in the present with the male narrator drinking his coffee the way his Polish grandmother always took her coffee, and lost in the drift of the “cream” in the coffee and the drift of his thoughts and the drift of the snow outside the window, he’s reminded of the past, of his first girlfriend Kate and their first adult jobs out of college, and these swirls of the past collect into a magical brew as ultimately, he remembers the passionate evening when he and Kate were making love on an el train streaking to Evanston and out the window, as the express train slowed while passing through a station, he sees a 16-year-old boy catching sight of them, grinning.

The last line of the story is of the narrator thinking: “It was as if I were standing on that platform, with my schoolbooks and a smoke, on one of those endlessly accumulated afternoons after school when I stood almost outside of time simply waiting for a train, and I thought how much I’d have loved seeing someone like us streaming by.”

Interestingly, I have a vivid and clear and very specific memory of reading this story in The New Yorker in April, just as I was about to graduate from my college in Evanston and head out into the world, hoping my boyfriend was going to stick around with me. I remember the couch where I was curled up, the yellowish light cast by my roommate’s lamp, the rug on the floor that no one vacuumed. And yet when I looked up this story online to prepare for this talk, I realized that the story was published in August—not even a school month—a full year and a half after I left college, my boyfriend long gone—and so my memory is wrong and yet, I have to say, also absolutely right, and that experience, more than anything, is what this story so perfectly captures.

[Note: The story can be found in Stuart Dybek’s collection, The Coast of Chicago. You can find a reductive and silly abstract of the story on The New Yorker's site, but, alas, not the full story.]

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

"How to Write a Novel"--Really!

If you haven’t already seen it, there's a great post over at Nathan Bransford’s site: “How to Write a Novel”:

“Don't be intimidated by the bigness of the task. As the great Donald Trump would say: It is a 'UGE task. 'uge. The best thing you can do is to break a novel up into some comprehensible components that you can think about in a coherent fashion and try as hard as you can not to be intimidated.

“Contrary to the myth of the writer sitting down blindly and letting their inspiration spill onto the page, whether you're a thorough outliner or an adherent to the school of write-as-you-go-I'll-edit-later, I highly recommend having at least a rough sketch of the below elements in place before you sit down and type "Chapter 1: It was a dark and stormy night."

Read on here.

So, No One Will See My Hardcover Virgil?

How our complicated relationship with the books we own is threatened by the Kindle et al:

“There are books we pretend to keep for reference, but in fact keep only because they look so damn fine on the shelf. And then there are the books where should-have-read blends with may-have-read, and we're too embarrassed to confess we can't remember which is the case ("Catcher in the Rye"). There are also the books of hollow triumph, the great tomes of philosophy read in college, which remain on the shelves like snapshots taken from the summit of Everest or like pants in the closet that will never again slide up our thighs without tearing.

“Electronic book readers are a great invention for people who actually read books. But what do they offer those of us who have an even more complicated relationship with books unread? Sitting on a shelf, Thomas Mann's "Magic Mountain" stares down as coldly and harshly as an alp in winter. Locked up in the digital ether of a Kindle or a Nook, it can never indict our miserable laziness.”

Read the rest of Philip Kennicott’s piece here, in the Washington Post.

Self Publishing Vs. Traditional Publishing: Pros and Cons

The Editorial Ass blog offers a good, even-handed write-up of the advantages/disadvantages of self publishing and traditional publishing:

“If you choose to self-publish, you have to remember it is a choice, that you're doing it for your own good and have been well-informed about your options. You can't let people get you down or angry or defensive--if you do, you've lost this game. If the publication of your book does not make you happy, then you shouldn't publish it.”

Read on here.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Free Workshop Deadline: August 30

NOTE: If you're looking for information on the Fall 2011 workshop, go here:

Just a reminder that the deadline to apply for the FREE Jenny McKean Moore Community Workshop at George Washington University is fast-approaching. This year the workshop is focused on creative nonfiction. Read more here.

ISO Creative Nonfiction

What I especially like about this call for submissions is that the editor included some helpful and specific information about what type of work appeals to him/her:

Call for CREATIVE NONFICTION submissions: Sycamore Review

Sycamore Review is now accepting submissions in CREATIVE NONFICTION using our new online submissions manager. Most of our nonfiction content could be classified as literary memoir or personal essay. Sycamore Review does not publish scholarly articles or journalistic pieces, though we do publish experiential journalism or personal reportage with a memoir bent. We are interested in originality, brevity, significance, strong dialogue, and vivid detail. There is no maximum page count, but remember that the longer the piece is, the more compelling each page must be.

Read below to find out what Nonfiction Editor Chidelia Edochie is looking for in an essay:

Following is a short list of essays that I love, and that I think manage to accomplish what I discuss above:
“Stain You Red” by Nicole Helget
“Burl’s” by Bernard Cooper
“The Love of my Life” by Cheryl Strayed
and“The Undertaking” by Thomas Lynch

Online submissions manager can be found at

Monday, August 16, 2010

Writing About What You Don't Want to Write About

Poet John Guzlowski writes movingly here about how he came to write about a subject he didn’t even want to acknowledge thinking about: the horrific experiences his parents had as slave laborers in the death camps in Nazi Germany:

“I address students and church groups and historians and general audiences, and invariably during those presentations I read some of the things I’ve written about my parents, and when I do, I hear my parents’ voices again, the way they told me their stories, and for me that’s the value of the poems and the personal essays I’ve written about them – hearing their voices that for so long I didn’t want to hear. And finally, it’s all about those voices, my parents’ voices and the voices of all those people who didn’t survive or who did survive but couldn’t speak about what happened.”

Read the rest—including some of John’s amazing poems—here.

Friday, August 13, 2010

New Email Address (and a Rant)

I am in the process of changing my email address to:

lesliepietrzyk AT gmail DOT com

Such a pain, but either someone has stolen my previous address and is busily spamming away or American Online is randomly blocking me from sending out email because I’ve been sending "too many" emails. (Umm…two is too many?) In any event, because AOL offers no tech support or any way at all (without paying and getting locked into a service contract) to contact someone to look into this, I am moving my account after all these years of loyally staying with them.

Does that sound like good customer service? I didn’t think so.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

My Book Is a Star!

Okay, more like a supporting role...

Check out this great video for The Regulator Bookstore in Durham, NC, advising people to “read a good book in the a.c.” to the tune of “Under the Boardwalk.” At about 36 seconds in, you can see A Year and a Day on the shelf on the right (hardcover version, no less). Thanks, Jim Haverkamp!

Here’s the bookstore link where the video is featured on the first page.

Work in Progress: Now What?

I finished this draft of my novel and now am “between projects.” So far, I’ve straightened up my office slightly, edited my email address book, debated about whether I should change my email address to a gmail account (goodbye recently purchased 500 business cards!), and have done some odds and ends around the house. I’ve stared at various stacks of things I thought I might want to organize. Maybe I’ve read a lot of links off Facebook, also.

I should feel relaxed and free.

Instead, I feel edgy and nervous.

As much as I complain about writing and how hard it is to write a novel, I miss being immersed in my own world. I miss knowing exactly what I’ll be working on. I miss editing and revising, my favorite part of the process.

I think I’m also edgy and nervous because I don’t have a one hundred percent, fully committed idea for the next novel, and that’s sort of unusual for me…usually there’s something percolating. Instead, I’ve got all sorts of half-baked ideas bubbling up, as if now there’s finally space for them in my head. (I’m now envisioning the inside of my head as a glass of champagne, and that makes things seem more promising than the sturdy, percolating, coffee imagery.) But it’s too many choices, too much—where is my focus? If you can do anything, how can you choose one thing?

I told myself that there’s no reason to rush. Why not pull out some old stories and rework them, tackle an essay or two, maybe a new short story; why not relax and enjoy the in-between-ness of where I am right now? Why not just read some books?

Once again, my favorite quotation from Rilke, usually applied to writing and now to “not writing”:

“There is no measuring with time, no year matters, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means not reckoning and counting, but ripening like the tree which does not force its sap and stands confident in the storms of spring without the fear that after them may come no summer. It does come…patience is everything.” ~~Rilke

And, can I note, that this state of “not writing” has been in effect now for TWO DAYS?!!? What’s that word again…relax?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Summer of Lists

The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40. (I forgot how unattractive those caricatures are; how "grateful" I am not to be included on this list.)

This blog’s fabulous response by Joe Schuster of 20 Over 40.

The Huffington Post’s Most Overrated Writers. (“Mean” or not, I agree with a couple of those choices.)

The response from Publisher’s Weekly of the Most Underrated Writers.

On and on…and we’re not even close to the annual glut of end of the year lists.

But here’s a list I can really get behind: “Literature’s 10 Best-Dressed Characters.” Scarlett O’Hara, Holly Golightly, and, naturally, Jay Gatsby (all those shirts!).

And I think I’m going to compile my own list one of these days: “Literature’s 10 Best Meals.” Off the top of my head, we’ve got the candy canes from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie, the whale steak and/or the chowder scenes in Moby Dick (thank god I’ve read this book and am able to name-drop it right here), the bread in Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, and let’s not even get started on Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast.

It’s immodest, but I can’t deny that people in my novels are constantly eating: Jell-O and pumpkin pie in A Year and a Day and pierogi in Pears on a Willow Tree. Even though the new book takes place in one day in 1900, I managed to squeeze in frankfurters, beet soup, and a dinner party menu with Charlotte Russe and potatoes a la maitre d’hotel.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Gatsby Spillover

Though I wasn’t trying to offer a complete list of Great Gatsby-inspired novels yesterday, I did want to mention another that I remember having read about a couple years ago: Gatsby’s Girl by Caroline Preston. (Thanks to Richard Peabody for reminding me!)

Here’s what it’s about (from the Publisher’s Weekly review on

“Inspired by the ephemeral but intense historical romance between F. Scott Fitzgerald and his first love, Chicago debutante Ginevra King, Preston bases her sexy, self-centered title character both on Fitzgerald's crush and the female characters (Daisy Buchanan, etc.) for which she was his muse. Ginevra Perry is the spoiled 16-year-old expert flirt who catches Scott Fitzgerald's fancy in 1916 in this gracefully written if drifting novel.”

Read the rest here.

One-Day Screenwriting Class

Trusted WNBA buddy Carla Danziger recommends this teacher and screenwriting class:

WHAT: 1 Day Screenwriting Seminar
WHO: Any level of writer or movie lover
DATE: Saturday, Aug. 21, 2010
TIME: 1pm – 6pm

PRICE: $100 (Includes $20 Course packet & Option to buy Screenplays & Discounted Final Draft #8 in class)

SPACES: Spaces are limited so sign up soon to reserve your spot!
LOCATION: 1 minute walking from Friendship Heights metro with parking garage below building. Detailed Directions will be emailed to you upon sign up.(Limited spaces remain!)

Learn the basics of writing and selling your own screenplay with a Yale Professor! Professor Marc Lapadula is a full-time lecturer at Yale University where he runs and teaches the entire screenwriting curriculum in The Film Studies Program. He has taught at Columbia University’s Graduate Film School, Johns Hopkins and the University of Pennsylvania. He has lectured at The Smithsonian Institution and many other venues.

Former students have written: (500) DAYS OF SUMMER, THE HANGOVER, THE BREAK UP, BRIDE WARS as well as several other highly successful and critically-acclaimed films. They have also scripted award-winning teleplays for TV: FAMILY GUY, LAW AND ORDER, SVU, SCRUBS, THE AGENCY and other shows. Marc produced the short film, ANGEL PASSING, starring Hume Cronyn, which was screened at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival and won the Grand Jury Award at WORLDFEST, the Houston International Film Festival. Most recently Marc co-produced the film, MENTOR, starring Rutger Hauer (Actor from the movie BLADE RUNNER). Marc has been an expert analyst in major lawsuits and has been a screenplay analyst to several studios and film production companies.


Monday, August 9, 2010

Link Corral: All Things Gatsby

As a respite from the rigors of Moby Dick, I’m now reading The Summer We Read Gatsby by Danielle Ganek, a light novel about two half-sisters who have jointly inherited a beach house in Southampton. There’s a nouveau riche man with a big, gaudy house; a beautiful woman with dramatic flair; a first person, observer narrator; and the possibility of a first-edition Gatsby dust jacket (one of the Holy Grails of book collecting). The book is fun enough, and there are no far.

Here’s the book review from the New York Times Book Review, but I haven’t read it because I’m not quite finished with the book and don’t want to hear what happens.


Yesterday’s New York Times Book Review included a review of Banana Republican by Eric Rauchway, which follows Tom Buchanan’s path after he heads out of East Egg. The review wasn’t very favorable—and I’m not sure I want to read more about Tom, especially when what happens is that he ends up in Nicaragua (!!). Still, it’s a Gatsby link and so it fits right into this blog post.

Here’s the review: “In the right hands, the technique of borrowing a character from a famous work of fiction and putting him back to work can be very successful. In other hands, it’s just a gimmick. And so it is in “Banana Republican,” where Tom Buchanan’s exploits in the novel that spawned him are irrelevant. No mention is made of Jay Gatsby; Daisy never surfaces; no connective tissue links Tom with his past. This is unfortunate because in the many places where the story lags, a surprise appearance by Jordan Baker could really pep things up.”

Why pass up the opportunity to send Daisy to Nicaragua?


From the blog Buzz, Balls & Hype:

“The Great Gatsby was not popular when it was published despite positive reviews and in its first fifteen years sold less than 25,000 copies. It had been largely forgotten when and Fitzgerald died. His obit mentioned the novel as evidence of his unrealized potential and brought some fresh attention to the title.

“But then, during World War II, the Armed Services Editions - which was amazing by the way and something we should bring back, gave away a few copies of the novel to American military.

150,000 copies to be exact. And that was that.”

Read the rest here.

Just for fun, here’s Fitzgerald’s silver hip flask and his briefcase, from the Fitzgerald Collection at the University of South Carolina. Both look well-used.

Finally, for locals, this class at Politics & Prose looks great:

Wednesdays, September 22 – October 27
THREE NOVELS BY F. SCOTT FITZGERALD : This Side of Paradise, The Great Gatsby, Tender is the Night
with Jackson R. Bryer, Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Maryland

This course will study Fitzgerald’s three best completed novels, in chronological order. The emphases in class will be on discussion of the common themes and characters they share, the development shown by Fitzgerald through his career, his fiction as a reflection of the times in which he wrote, and the fictional techniques utilized in each novel and how - from novel to novel - they were both similar and varied.

$100 for non-members, $80 for members.

Class meets for 6 consecutive Wednesdays beginning, September 22 – October 27, 1-2:30 p.m., with the exception of October 13 when the class will meet from 3-4:30

Click here for more information and to enroll in the class.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Reading Moby Dick, 9: Call Me Done

Yes, I finished reading Moby Dick last night, which I believe meets my deadline to finish within the week, so sorry—though I was totally ready to award an all-expenses paid trip to Nantucket to one of you if I didn’t make my goal, I guess that won’t be happening.

I’m glad I didn’t read this book until later in life; I’m sure it would have been torture to encounter this in some American lit class in college, plowing through it in a couple weeks, all the while worrying about my suffering social life as I sat tucked in the library. Now, though, I would love to sit in on a class from someone who’s studied the book, since I’m sure I missed a ba-jillion things. I rather liked that my edition didn’t have any footnotes at all beyond the few that Melville included as that helped me feel immersed in the story, but, to be honest, I was never straight on or worried about logistical details like which rigging was which. The story and the ideas pulled me through and I tried not to get bogged down in wondering about details like how it was that no one died along the way in those three years (in such a dangerous profession) or how, honestly, one ship could store so much water for so many people without stopping anywhere to re-provision. It’s like they say in the workshops: you can make a reader believe anything if you’re good enough.

I read this book as a reader first, a writer second, and an English major third. I’ll do some reading now on what things “mean”—I’m sure there’s a boatload (haha) of PhD dissertations about the sexual symbolism, and I read D.H. Lawrence writing about the book and how the book represents “America,” an apt theory though it reminded me a bit of people saying the “Wizard of Oz” equals World War II. (Here’s Lawrence, definitely worth looking at; thanks to Jamie for the link). So there’s all that and of course, the overwhelming question: What does the white whale mean?

From my vantage point, I’d have to say that it means what you need it to mean to complete your dissertation. That’s the beauty and genius of the book: Moby Dick is first a whale. Obviously, Melville goes to a LOT of trouble to establish his credentials about whaling (he worked on a whaleship) and to convey his knowledge of whales. Indeed, in a book with so many favorite parts, all the whale stuff may be my most favorite. Yes, the ship has three masts, and masts are phallic symbols, and there may be some holy trinity stuff, and surely several other things I’m not thinking of, but also—honestly—a real ship has masts. It’s a ship before it’s a symbol. The characters are not exactly the way we write characters today, but even so, they were consistently drawn and vivid. They can represent many things, but I still think I’d recognize Queequeg if I saw him walking down the street.

The story comes first.

I’m reminded of two things:

1. One of my favorite passages from Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners, that I’m abbreviating shamefully:

“In good fiction, certain of the details will tend to accumulate meaning from the action of the story itself, and when this happens they become symbolic in the way they work. I once wrote a story called “Good Country People,” in which a lady Ph.D. has her wooden leg stolen by a Bible salesman whom she has tried to seduce. Now I’ll admit that, paraphrased in this way, the situation is simply a low joke. The average reader is pleased to observe anybody’s wooden leg being stolen. …

“If you want to say that the wooden leg is a symbol, you can say that. But it is a wooden leg first, and as a wooden leg it is absolutely necessary to the story. It has its place on the literal level of the story, but it operates in depth as well as on the surface. It increases the story in every direction, and this is essentially the way a story escapes being short.”

(You can read the whole passage here.)

2. This passage that I marked in Moby Dick, from the chapter where Ishmael is talking about all the terrible, misguided, and embarrassingly wrong pictures of whales that the public has seen:

“For all these reasons, then, any way you may look at it, you must needs conclude that the great Leviathan is that one creature in the world which must remain unpainted to the last. True, one portrait may hit the mark much nearer than another, but none can hit it with any very considerable degree of exactness. So there is no earthly way of finding out precisely what the whale really looks like. And the only mode in which you can derive even a tolerable idea of his living contour, is by going a whaling yourself; but by so doing, you run no small risk of being eternally stove and sunk by him. Wherefore, it seems to me you had best not be too fastidious in your curiosity touching this Leviathan.”

As always, there are mysteries beyond us, and boiling down Ahab’s quest and this book into some formula of meaning feels tiny to me. (This, surely, is why I ended up as a writer and not an English professor.)

I’m guessing this isn’t the last I’ll have to say on this magnificent book. It’s going straight to my “favorite book shelf.” The experience of reading it over a summer, while revising my own work, starting the process of each and finishing each at about the same time, has been incalculably affecting. I already miss this book, and there’s part of me that wants to go right back to page 1 and read it again.

Call me crazy.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Reading Moby Dick, 8: Thar She Blows!

I find it amazing that Moby Dick does not show up until page 480 in a 505 page book, leaving me to contemplate how absence can create a stronger presence. Melville is totally impressive and, dare I saw, under-appreciated?

Katharine Davis: A Slender Thread

Congratulations to my friend and former writing group member Katharine (Kitty) Davis on the publication of her new novel, A Slender Thread. I read much of this in progress, but not the ending—because Kitty moved and had to leave the group—so I’m eager to see how things turned out for these memorable characters.

Here’s what the book is about:

"As a girl swimming in the waters of Bow Lake, where she and her family spent every summer, Margot Winkler knew her big sister, Lacey, would keep her safe. Decades later, Lacey’s home in a small New Hampshire town is often Margot’s refuge from her less settled situation with her live-in lover, Oliver, in Manhattan. But everything changes just before Thanksgiving, when Lacey meets Margot’s arrival for the holiday with devastating news. . ."

Here’s some of the prepublication praise:

“With a sure, light touch and a shrewd eye for telling details, Katharine Davis expertly weaves a resonant story about the bonds of family, the tug of geography, and the regenerative power of art. A Slender Thread is an emotionally rich and penetrating novel.”
~~Christina Baker Kline, author of Bird in Hand and The Way Life Should Be.

Be sure to check out Thursday Thoughts, Kitty’s blog about books she’s been reading; a great way to develop your own reading list: go here.

You can read more on her website. And you can buy the book here!

Note to the FTC overlords: Nothing free here; I ordered my copy from Amazon and it’s on its way.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Speaking of Titles...

…as I so often and obsessively am these days, here’s a list of the “best” titles as voted by GoodReads readers, complied in 2008 (thanks for the link, Keith!). Many of them mention food or are definitely in the humor category.

Top Ten:

1. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
By Seth Grahame-Smith and Jane Austen

2. Something Wicked This Way Comes
By Ray Bradbury

3. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
By Philip K. Dick

4. The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse
By Robert Rankin

5. Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation
By Lynne Truss

6. I Was Told There’d Be Cake
By Sloane Crosley

7. Are You There Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea
By Chelsea Handler

8. Stop Dressing Your Six-Year-Old Like a Skank: And Other Words of Delicate Southern Wisdom
By Celia Rivenbark

9. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
By John Berendt

10. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Hitchhiker’s Guide, #1)
By Douglas Adams

I’m pretty sure that adding the word “river” to any of those would work:

Stop Dressing Your Six-Year-Old Like a RIVER Skank
I Was Told There’d be Cake at the RIVER

Anyway, read the rest here.

Monday, August 2, 2010

And the Survey Says...

Thanks to all for taking my all-important title survey; for me, it was a lovely distraction from working on the book. And perhaps its greatest benefit was that it showed me how absolutely CRAZY I have become over this issue of the title. Yes, a title is important (Trimalchio vs. The Great Gatsby, anyone?), but I’ve really gone overboard. I think I’ve either come up with or heard every possible combination of words that involve the word “river.”

So, this exercise has inspired me to take a deep breath and calm down. (And to come with the perfect title BEFORE I start the next novel.)

Without further ado, here’s the breakdown, starting with what people liked (or, at least, were not horrified by since the question asked for any titles that sounded good):

Authoritative, scientific note: Percentages have been rounded.

A Handful of Water

Reversing the River

Moving the River
The River Decides
Tied at 20%

Water in One Hand

Like Water in One Hand
A Marvel of Modern Engineering
Tied at 13%

The River Within the River
[sorry, beautiful Thomas Lux poem where this line came from]

And the results for the single title that people selected as the one they did not like:

A Marvel of Modern Engineering

The River Within the River

Like Water in the Hand

The River Decides

Reversing the River
Moving the River
Tied at 6%

Water in One Hand

A Handful of Water

So what will I do? Here’s where it’s nice that writing is a dictatorship of sorts. Even though the people have spoken, I have discovered a new title that I’m pondering (noooo!):


I’ve been pondering it for a couple of days now, and I must admit that my pondering is tending negative at the moment, though I haven’t quite decided 100%. Right now I’m leaning toward:


Since I’ve actually read the book, this one fits literally and metaphorically, and I like the rhythm of it. The survey helped me see that it’s not “hated” (like, ahem, other choices I truly loved [The River Within the River]). And one piece of titling advice that I heard early on has stuck with me, whether rightly or wrongly: that a good title puts a specific image of something concrete in the reader’s mind. While I like A HANDFUL OF WATER (which, ahem, I did not think of myself), it reminds me of Evelyn Waugh’s A HANDFUL OF DUST and I would have to force in an “explanation” of the title in the text to make it seem not arbitrary. REVERSING THE RIVER seems to rise naturally from the book itself.

As for where REVERSING THE RIVER came from…well, I’m not sure. I found it written on a sticky note from the pad at my desk; the scribbled scrap had been moved at some point into my (bulging) folder of title ideas. I had looked through this folder countless times, and believe me when I say that there are a ba-zillion options and ideas, and this tiny little note had been overlooked for quite a while.

So it could have been something Steve shouted out at me as he passed by my office. Or it could have been something someone emailed me that I wrote down. Or it could have been something I thought of. Or maybe it just made its way into that folder to be rediscovered when I needed it.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.